November 24, 2004

The White Circus #2: Painful Symbolic Gestures and the Magic Eight Ball: Snotty comments on Sölden, and my predictions for the 2004-2005 World Cup

Let me begin with a disclaimer: I'm not a World Cup ski racer, and I don't know how their heads work. But I have to think that at least some of them feel the same way I do about the World Cup season opener. It is held every year in late October on the Sölden glacier in Austria, and every year, I'm willing to bet, at least some racers look at that date and think, "Do we really have to do this?" In some ways, the Sölden races make all kinds of sense. They're almost like a preseason event: held a full month before the World Cup schedule really gets into gear, with between two and four races a week for both men and women, they give the racers an opportunity to test their gear, their snow legs, and their newly rebuilt knees under real race conditions. If you run into any problems at Sölden, you've got a good four weeks to try and work it out. The Sölden races also give everyone a chance to scope out the competition, although in a sport like ski racing, there usually isn't that much you can do if someone else shows up with something unexpected. The fans love the Sölden races for the same reason sports fans everywhere love the first event of a new season. But the biggest Sölden enthusiasts, without a doubt, are the ski equipment manufacturers. Just like Halloween candy appearing in stores sometime around the Fourth of July, ski manufacturers want people to start thinking about buying new gear long before they'll actually be able to use it. Thus, for every top racer at Sölden, there are about two dozen manufacturers' reps talking nonstop about how their top racer is going to go all the way this year because he's finally using some decent equipment. The racers, for their part, dutifully recite the lines that go along with their endorsements: "I think that I can be competitive this year because now I finally have the equipment that will allow me to take it to the next level yak yak blah blah blah." And the consumer market pump gets primed, and a bunch of teenage wannabees and middle-aged woulda-beens go out and buy the same gear that Hermann or Bode or Kjetil are using. What's not to like? A lot, actually -- if you're not selling ski gear. As an official season opener, the Sölden races are kind of a dud. There are four types of World Cup races -- slalom, giant slalom, super giant slalom, and downhill -- and Sölden hosts only one of these, a giant slalom for women and one for men. Speed event specialists, those who primarily ski downhill and super G, often skip Sölden altogether, so fans are left to wonder for another month about who's going to have a big year in those events. The lengthy gap after the Sölden races has its down side, too, particularly for the North American racers: you shlep over to Europe for one race, then go back home and wait for the season to really start. Plus, the races are held on a glacier, because that's the only place you can find snow in continental Europe in late October. In years past, this has usually meant a very consistent surface, but with global warming taking a big chunk out of the Alpine glaciers, conditions are getting to be more and more dicey. If you're a recreational skier, bad conditions mean an annoying day and some wasted money, but in a World Cup race, they can mean season-ending injuries. The Sölden races are a painful symbolic gesture, but they're hard for the racers to duck out of, because in addition to endorsement deals and a possible new surgical scar, they can also pick up real honest-to-god World Cup points. One hundred points go to the winner, and given that the World Cup champion usually has between 1200 and 1400 points for the season, everybody takes a long hard think before passing up any race. If you're a sportswriter covering the ski racing beat (or even an amateur who's faking it, like me), Sölden is when you make your predictions -- if you haven't made them already -- about the upcoming season. The season is now officially under way, and it's time to go on record with some prophetic words that you'll later regret about who's going to do what. So I started to write my predictions, based on a very careful analysis of past results, state of health, etc. Then I thought about all the random factors. First, there's injury, which can happen to anyone in any race. And then there's the weather, which, given the sad state of European snow in recent years, can mean cancellations, delays, and conditions so bad that they neutralize a lot of the best racers' skill advantage. In the worst case -- and this has happened every season in recent years -- events have had to relocate entirely, not just around the corner and down the road, but halfway across Europe. And that can really mess with your predictions, because most racers develop an affinity for certain hills where they consistently do well, and when the White Circus announces a change of plans because the hill on the schedule is brown instead of white, the favorite is suddenly the favorite no more. And then there's the team thing. Some teams are a collection of selfish bastards wearing the same uniform; others, although they go out of the starting gate one at a time, seem to have some actual team chemistry going on, and at least some of the time, it seems to help. I looked at all of those random and unquantifiable factors, and tried to fit them into my scientific analysis -- for about five seconds. Then I chucked them out the window, and reached for my Magic 8 Ball. You know, that goo-filled plastic toy that looks like an 8 ball, and when you ask it a yes-no question and turn it upside down, an answer to your question swims to the surface? Take it from me, the Magic 8 Ball is the perfect tool when you're trying to come up with a prediction for a sports season, but you don't want to be nailed down so hard that you'll have to eat all those pompous words in five months. With answers like, "Signs point to no," and "Most likely", you can backpedal as much as you need to, and never appear to be going in reverse. So, without further ado, here is what I -- with the help of my friend, the Magic 8 Ball -- have to say about how various World Cup teams will fare in the 2004-2005 season. Not every team is included -- just those that will produce something impressive this year, or ought to, at least. Austria: My Sources Say No Mine do too, Magic Eight Ball. Austria would appear to have it all: a huge development program, enough depth that their jock-washer squad could be the A team just about anywhere else, and more historical World Cup success than any other country. And despite all this, I'm predicting that this will be the year that the wheels really fall off the Austrian wagon. This team operates as a combination personality disco and experiment in social Darwinism, where racers are constantly pitted against one another to determine who will get to start. Constant ski-offs for race starts aren't exactly conducive to team harmony or individual serenity, but it gets better: in recent years, it seems that starts in some of the biggest races have been awarded at least in part on star quality, and not purely on performance. The big names, such as Stephan Eberharter and Hermann Maier, have been able to cruise, while the less well-known racers have sometimes been benched even after meeting the team's stated criteria for a start. If you think that Austrians are too stolid to get honked off at being jerked around like that, think again: in 2004, after years of respectable results led to a season of getting bounced between the World Cup and the minor leagues, Austrian racer Pepi Strobl finally gave up in disgust and applied for Slovenian citizenship, so that he can compete for them. So the ranks of the Austrian spear-carriers are no longer as orderly and well-behaved as they once were. In addition, the "stars" are getting long in the tooth. Eberharter is now retired, and the 32-year-old Maier -- a triumph of orthopedic repair after nearly losing a leg in a motorcycle crash three years ago -- is constantly making noises about how he's starting to feel his age. On the women's side, Michaela Dorfmeister and Renate Goetschl still make regular podium appearances -- but they're both 31, and particularly with Goetschl's history of injuries, the Austrians need to be looking to the future. The younger ones who should be following along, on both the men's and women's side, are not all that young themselves. The Austrian program also has a big hole on the technical side, caused by years of concession to public opinion which attached greater status to the big speed events such as the Hahnenkamm. The problem, as the Austrians are about to discover, is that if you give the public exactly what it wants, no questions asked, after a while you'll have nothing worth giving. As it stands now, the Austrians don't have one single reliable podium-quality technical skier. There are several coulda-shoulda-wouldas on the men's side, but nobody who's going to bring home the bacon on a regular basis. My prediction: one speed discipline World Cup for the Austrian women, and possibly one for the men, if Maier can have one more superhuman year. At the World Championships, the Austrians will pick up four medals on the women's side (three in speed events and one combined -- Nicole Hosp, if she can stay healthy), and three on the men's side (two speed -- Maier and somebody else, probably Walchhofer -- and one technical). Switzerland: Very Doubtful The big question of "Whatever happened to the Swiss?" is an intriguing one, but it will have to wait until we've answered the question of "Whatever happened to the Germans?" I have no insight into the Swiss program; all I can say is the obvious, which is that they ought to have everything going for them, but they don't seem to be generating anything in the way of results. Didier Cuche skis like he ought to be a podium regular, but he isn't; Ambrosi Hoffman is another top-ten guy who can't quite make the inner circle; Bruno Kernen became a national hero when he won the Lauberhorn in Wengen in 2003, but he hasn't come close since then. These are the best guys on the Swiss team, and they're not up-and-comers: they've all had several seasons to show their stuff, and they're not showing signs of improvement. The situation for the Swiss women is a little harder to call. There are a couple of speed specialists -- Nadia Styger, who finished out the 2004 season with a super G win at Sestrieres, and Fraenzi Aufdenblatten (no, I didn't make that up) -- who are showing signs of possibly developing into regular contenders. But veterans Sylviane Berthoud and Sonja Nef, who used to be reliable producers in speed and technical disciples, respectively, have had fairly lackluster seasons lately. There just isn't enough there for the Swiss women to make much of a mark. My prediction: I'm sorry to diss the Swiss, but I have to say it. Six, count 'em, total World Cup podium finishes for the Swiss this season. That's podiums, not wins. Two World Championship medals, tops, both in speed events -- and that's a stretch. Italy: Outlook Good If you're looking for the reason why I'm picking Italy to distinguish itself this year, you can forget the record books. On paper, they've been even less impressive than the Swiss, with Giorgio Rocca and Massimiliano Blardone providing the few, infrequent fireworks on the men's side, and Isolde Kostner the only reliable contributor on the women's side. The numbers just aren't there to support a distinguished season for the Italians. And yet I think they're going to do it in '05: not a World Cup win, not even a discipline cup, but they'll end up on some podiums, and some of them will be big ones. Reason: the Italians are good big-event skiers, and we are heading into a couple of years of very big events, particularly if you happen to be Italian. The 2005 World Championships are being held in Bormio starting in January, giving the Italian team an opportunity to compete for titles in front of their home crowd -- and to give their fans a taste of what will come a year later, when Bormio will host the 2006 Winter Olympics. It's all in the intangibles for the Italians: if the chemistry is right, and it will be, they're capable of winning big. My prediction: No fewer than ten World Cup podiums for these folks. Blardone will get at least one win. Kostner will hang in there, Karbon will step up, and Cecciarelli will produce at least one more stellar performance. No World Cups for these folks, but I'll say five World Championship medals. Sweden: Signs Point To Yes I'll go along with this one too, Magic Eight Ball. Sweden has the most potent single-shot weapon in the women's World Cup, in the form of the physically healthy, mentally steady, and damn near technically perfect Anja Paerson. Last year's overall World Cup winner, with seven individual wins, Paerson is the most dominant skier of either gender in the world today. Barring a major injury, Paerson will bring home the bacon, without fail. Apart from Paerson, the Swedish team is mostly up-and-comers, but there are a couple of promising signs. Anna Ottosson had decent results last year, and Frederik Nyberg appears to be coming on. The biggest weakness of the Swedish team, besides lack of depth, is the absence of strong speed skiers. They have no top 15 presence in the speed events, and although Paerson is having modest success in branching out into super G and downhill, she's not going to commit a major effort to speed events and risk losing her edge in slalom and GS. My prediction: Paerson will do it again: overall World Cup and at least one technical discipline World Cup, and probably two golds at the Worlds. Ottosson and Nyberg will both start producing regular top 10 results. Germany: Cannot Predict Now To say that the Germans have been going through hard times is an understatement. A couple of years back, they went so far as to give their entire men's World Cup team the toss, since they weren't producing anything. The start-over approach hasn't yielded results yet, and Felix Neureuther, the top German man, finished 62nd in the overall World Cup standings in 2004. Big surprise: Neureuther only skis slalom, and he crashes a lot. In 2004, he ate the gates in six races, and failed to qualify for a second run in three more, giving him only six World Cup finishes for the year, and a best result of seventh place. Not the sort of performance around which a powerhouse program is built, to say the least. Meanwhile, the German women have soldiered on, led by the steady presence of Hilde Gerg, a speed-event veteran who, in the last three seasons, has spent as much time on the podium as off it. Behind Gerg is 20-year-old Maria Reisch, one of the most promising up-and-coming skiers on the World Cup today. Not only did Reisch come up with three World Cup wins last season -- but they were in three different disciplines. She is the only woman on the tour today who has demonstrated the ability to get top results in any race, and she finished third in the overall standings last season -- not too shabby for a young'un. The points duel between Reisch and Paerson should be very exciting, and the Worlds could see these two contending for the title of Queen of Bormio. My prediction: Between six and eight wins World Cup wins for the women. I'm lowballing a little on that, but that's because of Gerg's propensity for second- and third-place finishes. I'll also pick Gerg to take one, maybe two speed event medals at the Worlds, and Reisch to take the gold in the combined and one other medal -- no guesses about the discipline. The men will win absolutely nothing. Croatia: Don't Count On It Oh, don't get me started on this subject. Put briefly, the Croatian ski team is the Kostelics, Janica and Ivica, two extremely talented siblings with more hardware between them than the average Home Depot. The problem, for both of them, is that the number of titles is rivaled by the number of surgeries. To all appearances, it's a classic drama-slash-tragedy: pushed too far too fast, got badly hurt while young, didn't take long enough to recover, skied too hard on rebuilt joints. The icing on the cake was Janica's thyroid surgery last year, which took her out for the entire 2004 season. Both Kostelics are back for the 2005 season. My guess is that neither will win a single race; that both are likely to become reinjured; and that the story will have a sad ending. My prediction: this is going to be a frustrating year for the Croatians, and a sad year for anyone who hates the sight of (self-)abused athletes. I predict nothing for Croatia. No World Cups, no World Championship medals, nothing. But they'll just about kill themselves trying. Norway: Cannot Predict Now The Norwegian ski team, known as the Attacking Vikings, is home to some of the best all-around racers in the modern era of the sport. The names that stand out are Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Lasse Kjus, but the all-rounder ethic is at the core of this team's philosophy. Bjarne Solbakken and Axel Lund Svindal stand poised to take over from the old men, both of whom have at least one more good season in them -- personally, I'd pick both Aamodt and Kjus to collect medals at the Bormio Olympics in 2006. Truls Ove Karlsen is a technical skier who will need to branch out if he's going to earn his Viking horns, but for a two-event skier, he doesn't do such a shabby job on points. The Norwegian men's team is both talented and deep, with its only possible weakness being the lack of a standout star in the here and now. Solbakken and Svindal aren't quite there, and reason and common sense say that Kjus and Aamodt will not be able to run as hard as the younger guys who will contend for the top standings this year. The Norwegian women's team isn't a contender -- not yet, probably not for a while to come. Compared to other teams, this team is quite young on average. While that would seem to be an advantage in a sport where ruptured ACLs are the rule rather than the exception, it doesn't work out that way in practice. Experience counts for a lot in this sport, and experience is what the Norwegian women chiefly lack right now. Check back in a year or two. My prediction: Aamodt, Kjus, Solbakken and Svindal will all be within the top fifteen in the overall standings, if they stay healthy. Nor would I be surprised to see the same faces on the podium in the combined at Bormio as we saw at the Worlds in St. Moritz two years ago: Kjus, Aamodt, and the USA's Bode Miller. Apart from one or possibly two medals in the combined at the Worlds, however, I don't think the Norwegians will score any major prizes this year. Instead, they'll just slowly and stealthily creep up on the other teams, and in a year or two, everybody will be saying, "Where did these guys come from?" France: Outlook Not So Good France is another of those countries that ought to be winning World Cup events on a regular basis. Isn't French one of the three official languages of the World Cup? And isn't the World Cup's governing body, the Federation Internationale du Ski, have a French name? If that doesn't give you a big natural advantage, I don't know what does. But despite the somewhat francophone nature of the sport, the fact remains that French skiing has traveled far from the days of Henri Duvillard, much less the days of Jean-Claude Killy -- and not always in the right direction. Today's French team includes skiers who can run with the best on a good day. There just aren't enough of them, and their most talented racers show an unfortunate inclination to be finicky about race conditions. There's an emerging pattern of the French failing to perform (and then objecting strenuously) when conditions aren't just so; sometimes they have a point, but while the French are objecting (and the FIS officials are blowing them off), racers on other teams are making off with the win. The French women's team ought to be better than it is -- and would be, if not for a tragic accident that occurred in the fall of 2001, when Regine Cavagnoud was killed in a senseless and utterly preventable training accident. Cavagnoud was the French team's number one speed specialist at the time; after her death, the lead fell to Carole Montillet, who proved to be more than capable, collecting a slew of speed event podiums and wins over the ensuing seasons, and picking up enough points for a good result in the overall standings. But, with the exception of a highly emotional gold medal win in the downhill at the Salt Lake City Olympics, Montillet has never been much of a big-event skier, and she's not likely to change this year. She'll invest plenty of energy in the Worlds at Bormio, but she won't have anything to show for it. And besides Montillet, the only bright light on the French women's team is Melanie Suchet, a speed specialist who can hit the top ten on a good day, but who has yet to win a race. The French men are even further back in the weeds, but there are a couple that I think will do something interesting this year. Antoine Deneriaz is highly erratic, but also talented, and he seems to have the sort of looseness in the marbles that can contribute to great results in a speed specialist. Frederic Covili is a rare beast in today's World Cup, a one-event specialist; he restricts himself to GS, and he's pretty consistently good at it. Beyond that, there are a few who look okay on paper -- Joel Chenal and Pierrick Bourgeat, specifically -- but who won't be top contenders. My prediction: Another frustrating year for Montillet, as she gets a "close but no cigar" in the speed discipline World Cup and the World Championships both. Deneriaz will pick up a medal at the Worlds, and Covili will knock at the door in GS -- but with racers like Bode Miller and Kalle Palander out there, he won't be getting in this year. Finland: Most Likely The Finns are almost like the Croatians: a couple of excellent racers, one male and one female, but no depth to speak of. In the case of the Finns, the talent resides in Kalle Palander -- that's the guy -- and Tanja Poutiainan -- that's the girl. Both are excellent tech skiers with plenty of good World Cup results to their credit, and Palander would clearly be the best men's tech skier in the world if it weren't for Bode Miller. Poutiainan is less dominant, but she's got both Anja Paerson and Maria Reisch to contend with. She will be part of a fierce three-way battle for supremacy in the tech events this season. Behind Palander and Poutiainan, the Finns have…nobody. Not really. Sami Uotila has had some decent World Cup results -- he's a GS specialist -- but he's very inconsistent. And that's all she wrote. My prediction: I give Palander a 50-50 chance on a discipline World Cup, and pick him to win the gold in the slalom at the Worlds. Poutiainan will end up on the podium in one of the tech events at Bormio, but I don't pick her to win either. I'll also pick Palander to win the slalom World Cup. Canada: As I See It, Yes Not sure I agree with you, Magic Eight Ball. The Canadians have several racers who are fairly regular visitors to the top ten -- Melanie Turgeon, Genevieve Simard, Emily Brydon, Erik Guay, Thomas Grandi. The problem is that they are visitors, not residents. They haven't picked up many World Cup points in recent years, and they won't this year, either. Instead, I expect steady incremental improvements, and a successful return for Turgeon, who took an early exit last season with an injury. Where the Canadians may do well is in the Worlds. Turgeon is the reigning downhill world champion; when she won in St. Moritz, it was a graphic demonstration to the rest of her team that all you need is one good race. The Canadians will go big at the Worlds, and have a decent chance at coming home with something to show for it. My prediction: A medal at the Worlds, probably from the women in a speed event. Nothing else this year. USA: Without a Doubt I feel a bit like a Red Sox fan saying, "This could be the year," but the signs look very good indeed, particularly for the men's team. The US has the top technical skier in the world, in the form of Bode Miller, and -- following the off-season retirement of Austria's Stephan Eberharter -- the top speed skier, Daron Rahlves. What's even better news is that both of them will be on Atomic gear this year, and both of them will be Atomic's number one boys, first in line to get the best stuff out of the race room. Bode has been skiing on Rossignol for the past two years, and has had more than one ski simply fall apart on him during a race. That won't happen on Atomic. The possible weakness on the men's side is lack of depth, and that remains to be seen. Apart from Miller and Rahlves, there is only one other US man who has been on the podium at the elite level: Erik Schlopy, who took the bronze in giant slalom at the 2003 World Championships with a come-from-behind second run that people are still talking about. Schlopy blew his knee a year ago, at the start of what looked like a breakout year for him; now he's back, the knee seems sound, and the breakout is on for 2005. Behind Schlopy are technical specialists Dane Spencer and Tom Rothrock, who have both come up with top-15 finishes in the past couple of years, and Bryon Friedman, a speed specialist who got his first World Cup starts last season and did well for a newcomer, including a 10th place finish at Chamonix. Marco Sullivan, a promising speed specialist, was recently injured and is out for the season, and Jake Fiala, a less-promising speed specialist, is being given another chance to come up with something better than two career top 15s. The men's team also includes two World Cup newcomers, Jake Zamansky and Jimmy Cochran, both of whom have shown a lot of promise on the NorAm and Europa Cup circuits. So the big issue is lack of proven talent, and that's where the team dynamic thing comes into play. As the winningest guy on the team, Bode Miller is naturally looked to for leadership, and in his quiet way, he's providing it. Bode has a knack for pulling the rest of the team up with him; Schlopy, who has been on and off the US Team since Bode was a pup, credits his younger teammate with the pep talk that got him his World Championship medal. The team seems to be blessedly free of friction and backbiting, and that's the kind of environment where all that young potential will have a chance to develop and not get crushed. Things on the women's side are a little more iffy. The team has a couple of proven speed-event talents in Kirsten Clark and Jonna Mendes, who took the silver and bronze in the super G at the last World Championships, in 2003. Clark has also had a couple of seasons as the number two or three in speed events, and has shown impressive consistency, turning in strings of podium finishes that kept her close to the top of the standings. Neither Clark nor Mendes did anything impressive in 2004 -- Clark's season ended early when she sustained her first-ever serious skiing injury, and Mendes just had an off year -- but both are healthy for 2005. More important, both have their heads together. That's more than can be said for the women's tech team, where the leading characters have a big history of soap opera and psychodrama. The best US woman in technical disciplines, Kristina Koznick, isn't even on the US Ski Team: after a falling-out over the no-fraternization rule several years ago, Koznick found herself with a new boyfriend -- one of her coaches -- but without a team. She went indie and has been struggling to make it on her own ever since. Still, she's been doing better than the best US woman who is on the US Ski Team. That's Sarah Schleper, a talented skier who constantly hamstrings herself with her metaphysical approach to what is, after all, a physical activity. Schleper suffers from a classic case of "paralysis by analysis": she overanalyzes and second-guesses, and seems mired in a perennial search for a gimmick that will magically transform her into a World Cup winner. If she can learn to just let herself alone and ski, she should do quite well, but she's taking her time to learn that lesson. Meanwhile, there are several younger women coming along, most prominent among them 19-year-old Resi Stiegler. For a wonder, the US Ski Team seems to have learned to avoid the "too far, too fast" problem where Stiegler is concerned, and have been limiting her World Cup starts. As a result, Stiegler has had some fairly consistent, steadily improving results that will probably see her in the top 15 in most of her starts this year. My prediction: Bode will win the overall World Cup, the combined World Cup, one technical discipline World Cup (probably GS), and at least three medals at the World Championships in Bormio, including a gold in the combined. Daron will win one speed discipline World Cup (probably downhill) and one speed event medal at the Worlds. Schlopy will have a very good, top-10 year, including a podium or two, and Jimmy Cochran will crack the top 10 in his rookie year. Mendes and Clark will be repeat medalists at the Worlds; Koznick will be in the top 10 half a dozen times and will get at least one podium; and this could be the year for Clark to finally win a speed discipline World Cup. So there you have it: several thousand words for me to print out on limburger cheese and eat sometime in the spring -- potentially. I don't think I'll really be eating all that many of them, but only time will tell. Meanwhile, you may be interested to know the results of the Sölden races -- which, I promise, I did not use in coming up with my projections. Bode won the men's race by a tidy margin, Blardone was second, and Palander was third. In the women's race, it was Paerson, Poutiainen, and Maria Jose Rienda-Contreras of Spain (didn't hear me mention her, did you?). Full results are on FIS for men and women, so you can see how close I was on the rest of them. See you next week with comments on Beaver Creek and the Aspen Winternational.

posted by lil_brown_bat to commentary at 03:01 PM - 0 comments

You're not logged in. Please log in or register.